Does Running Build Calves? YES, Here's Why

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 5, 2022

When most people think of building their muscles, they envision heavy repetitions of weighted exercises, or long sets in various exercise machines at the gym.

However, what most people don’t realize is that running itself can also build the muscles of the lower body, with the calves in particular receiving significant benefits in terms of size and strength.

Yes, running can indeed build your calves - all the while also inducing the many other benefits that aerobic exercise can provide. 

For individuals without the time or energy to put in additional calf work at the gym, running may be an excellent solution to their underdeveloped calves muscles.

Does Running Train the Calves?

The calves are generally divided into two muscle groups - the gastrocnemius and soleus - with both of these muscle groups being responsible for ankle locomotion and stabilization.

Seeing as how running makes full use of these biomechanics while simultaneously also providing resistance via the exerciser’s own bodyweight, there is no doubt that running can indeed train the muscles of the calves.

running on treadmill

A better question would be to what extent does running train the calves.

Training stimulus is directly related to the intensity of the training being performed, meaning that the harder running recruits the muscles of the calves, the greater the development of said muscles will be.

Obviously, not every running session is as challenging as the other, and as such we can establish that changing several factors of your run can alter how well your calves will develop from your training - something that we will cover later in the article.

How is Muscular Hypertrophy Achieved?

Muscular hypertrophy (colloquially known as “building mass”) is achieved by creating tiny tears along the fibers of the muscle, of which will heal stronger and larger than they originally were. 

This, at a larger scale and over long lengths of time, will result in the muscle itself appearing to be larger, and capable of outputting greater force.

It is important to keep in mind that training stimulus is not the only component responsible for this sort of response, as proper protein intake, a caloric surplus, sufficient rest time and a host of other factors all work together to achieve this hypertrophic effect.

In the case of the calves, this is usually achieved either with directly targeted isolation exercises like the weighted calf raise or jump squat, or as a secondary effect of exercise that recruits the muscles of the lower body, such as running at an incline.

Running and Building Calves - an Overview

Now that we’ve established whether running can build the muscles of the calves or not, lets take a deeper look into how running does so, and what sort of characteristics of running may be tweaked so as to take advantage of this effect.

Incline 

One of the most important factors of running (in regards to the calves) is the incline at which the exerciser is running at, with higher inclines forcing the legs to be raised higher with each step and subsequently recruiting the calves to a greater extent as well.

incline treadmill

Unfortunately, this also means that the cardiovascular system will be taxed to a greater degree as well, shortening the total length of time that the exerciser may continuously run. 

However, this is not as much of a worry for individuals seeking out calf muscle development from running, as the greater training stimulus placed on such muscles is more than worth the trade-off in workout time.

Runner’s Bodyweight

Though running is considered to be an unweighted exercise, one must also take into account their own bodyweight during running, as their calf muscles will be leveraging the entirety of their body with each step made.

Heavier individuals will find that their calves are strained to a greater extent than those of a lighter bodyweight, meaning that bodybuilders or people with higher body fat percentages are more likely to build their calves from running than their skinnier counterparts.

Individual Biomechanics

Depending on the exerciser’s body proportions, level of mobility and a host of other bodily factors, the involvement of their calves within the motion of running can be affected significantly. 

While the majority of these factors are dictated by genetics and cannot be directly controlled for, performing a proper mobility drill prior to a running workout will ensure that the calves are involved to the greatest possible extent, and throughout their entire range of motion.

Method of Running

Depending on what sort of running you are performing, the calves may receive more involvement. 

While the constantly rolling conveyor of the treadmill will reduce the involvement of the calves, other types of running like trail running or hill sprints will increase the resistance placed on the calves, improving their development.

This plays somewhat into the other factor of incline as well, as certain running environments will produce a more steep incline or otherwise create a less predictable running path, forcing the calves to stabilize the ankles to a greater extent.

How to Maximize Calf Development from Running

Programming Running for Calf Development

In order to structure your running workout in a way that builds up the calf muscles, you will need to place as much training stimulus on said muscles as possible, while also avoiding high levels of cardiovascular fatigue - of which will essentially limit how much you can train your calves.

The ideal training structure for this sort of workout is that of interval training; of which involves intense bursts of high exertion sprinting, followed by lengths of light walking or jogging.

Not only does this ensure that the calves are stimulated to the greatest degree for muscular hypertrophy, but it also allows the cardiovascular system to recover between bouts of intensity so as to stretch out the workout.

Ankle Weights? Yes or No?

Though the addition of specially placed weights along the body sounds like a no-brainer, it is in fact a terrible idea. 

ankle and wrist weights

The usage of ankle weights while running will greatly increase the impact running has on the joints of the legs, eventually resulting in injuries of both the chronic and acute nature. Any sort of additional calf muscle development that may be benefited from the usage of ankle weights is not worth the risk at all.

Instead, turn to free weight resistance exercises that do not present the same risk of injury, such as seated calf raises.

Pre-Run Mobility Drills

As was covered briefly earlier, maximizing calf and ankle joint mobility is quite important if running for the purposes of calf muscle development.

This is to ensure that the calves are utilized throughout their full range of motion, and that they are not otherwise overshadowed by larger muscle groups due to poor flexibility of the legs.

Though there are dozens of different methods of achieving these benefits, simply foam rolling the calves alongside performing a standing calf stretch should be more than sufficient for the majority of healthy individuals.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why are Calves so Hard to Grow?

Calves are difficult to grow because of their inherently small size in comparison to the rest of the body, as well as the fact that they are shaped in such a way that it is quite difficult to instill meaningful training stimulus upon them without involving larger muscle groups that reduce their involvement in an exercise.

Are Calves the Hardest Muscle to Grow?

Whether a particular muscle group is difficult to grow or not will depend on a multitude of factors, some of which are genetic and otherwise unavoidable, and others due to the various training methodologies employed by the exerciser.

As it stands, calves are among the most difficult muscle groups to develop because of their inherent form, as well as the fact that practically every modern training program does not involve direct calf muscle training - something that is essential in order to develop strong and large calf muscles.

Does High Incline Treadmill Build Calves?

Yes - in fact, apart from uphill sprints in an outdoor setting, performing treadmill running at a significant incline is one of the most effective ways to build your calves while also running. 

So long as you have sufficient aerobic endurance capacity to keep it up for an extended period, you should have no trouble inducing muscular hypertrophy in your calves.

Final Thoughts

So, does running build calves? Absolutely! Though some tweaking is needed in order to maximize the development that your calves will undergo during your running sessions.

As always, do not forget to also incorporate sufficient protein intake, a caloric surplus and proper rest and recovery methods into your lifestyle so as to ensure that your calves do indeed grow in size and strength from your training.

References

1. Trappe SW, Costill DL, Goodpaster BH, Pearson DR. Calf muscle strength in former elite distance runners. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1996 Aug;6(4):205-10. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.1996.tb00092.x. PMID: 8896092.

2. Ben T. van Oeveren, Cornelis J. de Ruiter, Peter J. Beek & Jaap H. van Dieën (2021) The biomechanics of running and running styles: a synthesis, Sports Biomechanics, DOI: 10.1080/14763141.2021.1873411

3. Ozaki H, Loenneke JP, Thiebaud RS, Stager JM, Abe T. Possibility of leg muscle hypertrophy by ambulation in older adults: a brief review. Clin Interv Aging. 2013;8:369-75. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S43837. Epub 2013 Mar 31. PMID: 23573066; PMCID: PMC3620094.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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